While many are, in our opinion, rightly hailing Gareth Southgate for his leadership of the Men’s Senior England Football Squad – we are considering the whole system that delivered “the most harmonious and close-knit national squad in living memory.”
What decision have been made, directions agreed upon, values embedded across multiple organisations and in various teams? What mistakes have been made and learnt from, experiments embarked on, research undertaken? What have the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years looked like that resulted in 11 English men, on a pitch on a Sunday night in an International Final for the first time in 55 years.
Southgate – Pre England Management
From the public’s perspective Gareth Southgate’s association with the England team was centred around his missed penalty in the 1996 Euro’s Semi-final against Germany however he later mocked himself publicly via a Pizza Hut advert alongside Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle who had both missed crucial penalties at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. How Southgate dealt with his missed penalty speaks volumes of his character and the choices he has made in life to take control of public opinion.
He was just 26 at the time.
Following a fantastic playing career, in 2006 Southgate was appointed as Middlesbrough Manager without the required coaching qualifications but with special dispensation - there must have been a huge amount of faith in his character and natural abilities not just from the club but from the FA who allowed such an unorthodox appointment.
He arrived to a tough task, to rebuild a squad that had sold several key players. Be it sport or business, losing one or more people can, and often does, have an unexpected impact on the team. Many organisations don’t truly realise what an individual contributes to a team until they are gone; be it a confident yet calm feeling in times of trouble or the growth of younger members in an unofficial mentoring capacity. Likewise, the leaver or leavers may be the glue of a social community that allows the team to get to know each other, understand intent, drive and build trust with each other. If that glue is lost other characters may have room to grow – this can be wonderful or a huge blow to the group’s culture and therefore cohesion, performance and delivery.
So the young manager needed to bring in not just the right players for the pitch but the right players for the whole team.
After a busy transfer period they had a mixed but unimpressive first season, and were again very active in the transfer window that followed - perhaps this flurry of purchasing spoke to less than perfect appointments in the previous. The team weren’t failing but they weren’t connected. There wasn’t a natural flow, an ease between players – the almost telepathic ability that many colleagues have that allows them to perform together. This smoothness was missing.
Unfortunately, rather than invest in players who may draw the team together around shared ambition or ways to grow an authentic culture with the people they had already, their investments seemed to focus on big names. This led to another mixed season including a worrying spell in the relegation zone.
Their record-breaking spending in 07/08 left them with limited funds, that paired with leavers, disjointed performance and a lack of support from travelling fans frustrated from erratic performance resulted in the team’s relegation. Although Southgate promised a quick return to the Premier League a poor start in the autumn led to his dismissal and the team waited until 2016 to achieve promotion again.
Our belief isn’t that this is the fault of the manager, or fault that falls to any individual but perhaps to a strategy that was based on the wrong belief. A belief that by bringing individually impressive players together an incredible team will emerge. This may be true however in organisations and teams who consistently perform and deliver there is more likely to be a mix of abilities and a culture of high support and high challenge. A trust in each others capabilities, and intent. Trust that the every member of the team is working toward success for the team – not for themselves.
At this point it is worth noting that in 2009 when Southgate left Middlesbrough some of the players who took penalties for England Lions in the UEFA Euro Final were just 7 years old.
St George’s Park
Around the same time Southgate was perhaps reevaluating his role as a manager the FA was reigniting its long-held dream to have a National Football Centre in England. The board had dreamt of a place for coach education, cutting-edge sports science and medicine, a training home for all 24 England teams and much more. In essence the newly named ‘St George’s Park’ would be the centre of excellence for English football and a convener of professional and grassroots, as well as elevating the professionalism of many of the ‘past-time’ style roles around the country.
A place to come together, share learning and drive consistency, collaboration and quality.
The media and public deemed St George’s Park to be a complete waste of £105 million, a trophy-wife of a development. However, some gave the FA room to prove its value over-time. There was a belief that by investing in football generally rather than looking to club football to lead the way a more joined up country of players, teams and supporting staff could be achieved. A shared purpose for all to improve football and its role in England.
England and Southgate
By the time Southgate was appointed to manage the England Under-21s in 2013, St George’s Park had been open and active for nearly a year and the 24 England teams were embarking on a move to behave as a single squad. Players have spoken of the dining halls where young players were across the tables from celebrity strikers – how the recognisable faces demonstrated a respect for all of the St George’s staff be they managers or janitors. The dream to remove competition and ego from players and teams was becoming a reality.
Southgate spent 3 years with The Young Lions creating a joined up and supportive team that looked to the long game rather than quick, but unsustainable, results. He saw his responsibility to be the growth of individuals – as players and as people.
His approach seemed to have evolved since his days at Middlesbrough, or perhaps the people and strategies around him at England better suited his style of leadership. Whatever the change, he was bringing young players together, believing in them, asking them to believe in one another and demonstrating a behaviour of togetherness rather than competition that was garnering results.
Right up until the Euro Final Southgate is said to give his final team talk prior to arrival – leaving the final words to the squad leaders. A clear demonstration of a leader that lifts.
In 2016 he was appointed as temporary manager of the Senior England team which, due to team successes lead to a permanent appointment. Over the course of the next 5 years both Southgate, his team of coaches, support staff and the FA have looked to the long-term of English football, encouraging young talent, healing the wounds that existed between the England team and the UK media and planning for sustainable high performance.
“Through brave decision making and a person over player approach, Southgate has turned the biyearly cesspit of underperformance into a new England, one built on confidence over arrogance, teamwork over individuality, and a positive relationship with fear. Southgate will be the first to tell you results do not always follow, but this summer they have.” Sky Sports News
The team we saw in the final was joined up and in sync, entirely at ease with one another and Southgate is said to have been the architect for that cultural shift. Many of the ‘golden generation’ of players who have witnessed this squad's culture are said to have been in admiration of it and remorse for what they could have had.
England and society
This whole system approach has removed the ego from individuals, reduced the celebrity of standout players and to some extend allowed their authentic characters to shine through over false but tabloid-media-friendly facades. Players have been encouraged to be themselves, and to know what it is to be themselves. To recognise what is important to them and to fight for it.
Paired with a global pandemic this ethos has gifted us Marcus Rashford MBE with his philanthropy and fight against child hunger, poor implementation of the Universal Credit system and literacy. It has made us proud of players who have spent their earnings on local community projects, buying a home for their parents and not flashing-the-cash as we have seen so many young players before them.
This maturity will serve them well both on and off the field and no doubt set a better example for all the children looking to them, wearing their shirts and pretending to be them in the playground – perhaps a generation of societally-conscious-football-fans is just around the corner.
A post that we saw on LinkedIn last week from a connection read “My 8 year old son came home and said that he and his mates are taking the knee at school before a kick about like the England team – he broadly understands why.”
Society and Government
One group that it seems safe to say has not been a part of the ‘whole-system’ of the England squad is our government. This is not a party-political jibe and in fairness it's not like they haven’t had their hands full but as a group of rising sporting heroes made the decision to take a stand (or the knee) in support of BLM and to align themselves with a huge societal conversation our government did not back them.
So while all in the England camp are working hard to come alongside the other England teams, celebrating the women’s game more than ever before, supporting communities, grass roots and progression programmes and healing relationships with the media – government were unable to stand alongside them on an issue that is hugely complex and, at the same time, utterly basic. And they let them down.
The tweets of support that followed the Sunday night game by some MPs and senior government officials were not only inauthentic but unwanted by the players.
Sport at its best can be a convener – it can remove inequality, barriers, class differences, gender and race. In the UK football has just that power, and international competitions can be the fire under it to unite a country – we believe this is what the FA and Gareth Southgate are trying to do, and we applaud them.
Closer to home
Our sister organisation Bath Rugby is a sports team that have embarked on a similar, whole system, approach to achieve sustainable purposeful performance.
This journey began six years ago with a decision to appoint previous club captain Stuart Hooper to Performance and Player Development Coach.
Stuart’s approach as a captain was to be open and honest with his team. To create an environment where ego was unwelcome but empathy, support and healthy challenge was highly valued. This approach made practise and play a safe place for players and for the academy to concentrate on being the best they can each be for each other and the team, rather than competing with each other.
It was this approach that attracted the attention of the management and led to the move from player to coach for Stuart. Three years later he was appointed Director of Rugby just prior to the 19/20 season, one hugely disrupted by Covid.
During this time Bath Rugby have brought its Foundation Charity closer to it with better and tighter collaborations between leadership and colleagues, in some cases even sharing resources across the two organisations.
The club have likewise integrated its academy more ensuring that the younger players have sight of, and are close to, the first team to ensure the first team stay grounded and the academy learn from those in the thick of it.
Most recently the club have announced their dedication to the girls’ and women’s game and have made a commitment to professionalise the team. Likewise they have built a wider network aiding grassroots rugby around the region.
Seeing any similarities?
Now, these investments in approach take time, as we have seen from the FA and the England squad. And they aren’t always easy or without their highs and lows but Bath Rugby believe this is the right way to develop a sustainably successful team and allow more and more people of any age and gender to benefit from rugby.
So, what next?
Our view is that Bath Rugby and England should continue on in the same vein – unencumbered by the defeats they encounter but buoyed by knowing they value the things that are most important to them. They should celebrate their achievements on and off the pitch and push on with the same long term and quality focussed mindset. One that brings people together, in an encouraging and supportive environment.
We believe it is better to deliver consistent purposeful performance than flash in the pan, unexpected and scrappy underdog successes. While the latter may be more dramatic, the former is healthier for all.
If the teams are united by their shared responsibility and shared purpose to improve football and rugby in England, and England through football and rugby they will succeed.